Filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin spends a tad too much time on the character-establishing setup during the first act of her “Body at Brighton Rock.” Once she has lured her audience into joining her plucky but ill-prepared protagonist into a secluded area of a picturesque state park, however, the first-time director efficiently ratchets up the suspense — gradually, arrestingly — and doesn’t let up until she springs a final twist that plays like O. Henry by way of Stephen King.
Taken as a whole, her movie resembles nothing so much as an episode of some ’60s anthology series, à la “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” that traditionally spun stories at a measured pace while sustaining tension and raising mortal stakes. Indeed, a judiciously trimmed version of “Body at Brighton Rock” would not have been out of place among the hour-long episodes produced during the 1963 season of the original “The Twilight Zone.”
Karina Fontes is well cast and convincing as Wendy, a part-time summer employee at a mountainous state park where friends and supervisors alike appear to view her as a frivolous scatterbrain. Partly to help a friend spend more time with her crush, and largely to prove she’s capable of handling responsibilities, she offers to switch assignments on the daily work schedule so she can post signs and police the grounds along a hiking trail. Unfortunately, Wendy, while well-meaning and determined, really is something of a ditz. She takes a wrong turn — several wrong turns, actually — and winds up atop a ridge deep in the backcountry.
And then she notices a dead body in a ravine below her.
Making her solo feature directing debut here after earning her spurs as a collaborator on “Southbound” (2015) and “XX” (2017), Benjamin methodically (and, for the most part, plausibly) paints Wendy into a corner by limiting her ability to communicate with home base after she’s ordered to remain in place and secure what may be a crime scene. Naturally, dusk is approaching and, just as naturally, a search team won’t reach her until morning, so she must spend the night all alone in the woods.
Except she isn’t alone: Before sunset, a vaguely ominous hiker who calls himself Red (Casey Adams) wanders by, takes an interest in the dead body, and pointedly suggests that the deceased may not have died as a result of a fall. Red departs, but Wendy worries whether he might return. Time passes, and she starts to worry about other possible unwelcome visitors. Like, for example, bears.
“Body at Brighton Rock” is at heart a story of empowerment, as Wendy struggles to transcend her free-floating fears and entirely justified paranoia while facing the likelihood that, if there’s any rescuing to be done, she may have to rescue herself. At the same time, however, Benjamin, working from her own screenplay, never allows her audience to get too comfortable. Throughout most of the movie, we see everything from Wendy’s anxious point of view. But Benjamin teasingly allows for the possibility that Wendy ultimately will be profoundly affected by something she never sees coming.
Deftly employing the power of suggestion and an emotionally potent sound design, “Body at Brighton Rock” is a well-crafted thriller with some crafty tricks up its sleeve.